My Last Duchess is probably Robert Browning’s most popular poem, which deals with Victorian social issues about the condition of women. It first appeared in 1842 in Dramatic Lyrics by the title Italy. Seven years later, the title was changed to “My Last Duchess” in 1849. The major reason for the fame of My Last Duchess is that it is probably the first example of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue.
The poem is about an Italian Duke, the Duke of Ferrara (also known as Alfonza II), who supposedly killed his first wife and is now planning another wedding to another woman. He displays a painting of his dead wife in his house and reveals it to a visitor. The poem explores the Duke’s, Obsessive Love.
About Robert Browning
Robert Browning is a prolific Victorian- Era playwright. He is widely recognized as the master of Dramatic Monologue. A Dramatic Monologue is a type of poetry in which an imagined speaker addresses a silent listener, usually not the reader. Browning’s monologues present a different aspect of love and its intensity.
Browning first major work Pauline is published in 1833. When he reads some poem by Elizabeth Barret, he falls in love with her without seeing her. His world-famous works included – Man and Woman, The Ring and The Book, Dramatic Personae, and Prospice.
The poem was written during the Industrial Revolution when society was starting to see social mobility in terms of class as well as gender. Women were starting to demand equality. Before women have no legal rights, they would become the property of their husbands. The only way for a woman to gain status is through her husband. When Browning wrote this poem he had this thing in mind so through this poem he tried to explore the injustice of the male dominant society.
My Last Duchess As a Dramatic Monologue
The Poem My Last Duchess is a dramatic monologue. It maintains the tradition of dramatic monologue and that is the presence of a speaker and the listener. The speaker in the poem is considered to be the Duke of Ferrara and the listener is the guest who comes to visit the Duke.
The important feature of the dramatic monologue is the abrupt beginning. The poem starts somewhere in the middle of the poem,
“That’s My Last Duchess Painted on the wall.”
Another characteristic of the dramatic monologue in this poem is the psychological analysis of the Duke and Duchess. Robert Browning here successfully analysis Duke’s psychology and shows us that the Duke is an egocentric, possessive husband, a cruel and vengeful person, a proud aristocrat, a greedy bridegroom, and an alienated person. He loves artwork more than humans.
However, the poem throws insight into social realism as a dramatic monologue. The Victorian era was a class-conscious society and especially women were bounded to certain conventional norms.
Moreover, Browning sketches the character of the Duchess through a dramatic monologue. The Duke tells his guests that Duchess liked everything and everyone she saw which reflects that she was sleeping around with another man. He even further argues that she gives an equal amount of smiles to another man who passes her and he tries to sketch her as an immoral woman.
Structure and Form
My Last Duchess by Robert Browning is a Dramatic Monologue written in five sections. The poem is written mostly in iambic pentameter. This means that the lines contain five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which of is stressed. There are a few examples of trochee and other stresses.
Themes Of The My Last Duchess
- The role of women in society and relationship
- Ownership, Power, Cruelty, Greed, and Jealousy.
- Control Over A Partner and Dominance in a relationship.
- Art and Influence.
Setting Of The Poem
The poem is set in the Italian town of Ferrara during the Renaissance period. The Duke who is also the speaker is supposedly Alfonso the second Alfonso is the fifth Duke of Ferrar and he lived during the 16th century. The Duchess is considered to be Lucrezia de Medici, the Wife of Alfonso.
Analysis Of The Poem
In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker talks about His Last Duchess. The speaker is a Duke and he is addressing an unknown or silent listener. The Duke points towards the painting of his Duchess on the wall who is dead now. The picture of the Duchess is so beautifully painted that the speaker says it seems that she is standing alive in front of him.
The Duke praises the painting and calls it a masterpiece. He also tells the listener about the artist or the painter who produced this amazing piece of wonder. He says that Fra Pandolf worked hard and it took him an entire day to complete it and give it a realistic effect. The painting seems as if the Duchess is alive and standing in front of the Duke.
The Duke then invites the listener to sit down and focus on the beauty of the painting. He asks him to examine the painting and admire its art.
The Duke tells the listener that he told him the name of the painter because everyone who looks at this painting, wants to know about the person who produced this piece of art. The People or the stranger who see this painting, also want to question how the painter portrayed so much depth and passion on the face of the Duchess and gave her expressions that look absolutely real. The Duke is only allowed to draw the curtain back that hangs over the painting. It means that only Duke can see this painting or show it to anyone else if he wants.
He further tells the listener that he is not the first one who is surprised to see this beautiful art.
The Duke keeps on addressing his silent listener and this time he calls him Sir. He explains the expression of the Duchess in the painting and tells the listener that the smile and the blush that he can see on her cheeks were not because of her husband’s presence. The Duchess was not happy because the Duke was around. Something else was the reason behind the Duchess’s Joy and Duke seemed jealous of these things because he always wanted her to have these expressions of joy on her face just for her husband.
The Duke starts guessing the reason behind the Duchess’s happiness. He suggests that maybe she smiled because Fra Pandolf praised her beauty. Duke criticizes his Duchess saying that she thought that courtesy or polite comments are enough to make her happy. It shows that the Duke didn’t want her to be happy or blush. On trivial compliments of everyone. He only wanted her to be happy in her husband’s presence or on his compliment.
The Duke next explains the nature of his late Duchess to the listener. He says that the Duchess had a gentle heart, she liked and praised everything that she looked at. In short, it was very easy for everyone to make her happy or to impress her with anything. In these lines, the Duke is not praising the Duchess but he is criticizing her.
The above lines give the idea that Duchess was very kind and down to earth but she was not what the Duke wanted his wife to be.
Next, the Duke calls his listener Sir and tells him further about the behavior of his Duchess. He tells if he brought her any present, brooch, or jewelry that she could wear on her chest, she used to smile or thanked him for the present but she became equally happy on trivial things like watching the sun, setting in the west, the branch of cherries, that some random fool brings for her from the orchard or the white mule on which she rode around the terrace.
Duke further tells him that she praised all these things equally or blushed in a similar way each time. It shows that though the Duke expected a special response from his wife yet the Duchess treated everything equally. Now it is clear that the Duke wanted his Duchess to pay special attention to him but she treated him equally and always responded to him just as she used to respond to any other common person or thing.
The Duke then says that she used to thank men. He had no problem with the Duchess thanking everyone but he didn’t like her way to do that. The Duke gave her nine hundred years old family names and prestige. He gave her a status by making her his Duchess that she never had before marrying the Duke but she didn’t even value this gift of his superior to any other minor thing done for her by any common person. There was a relationship gap between the Duke and the Duchess, this is why he never told her anything about her behavior.
The Duke tells the listener that he admits his Duchess was always nice to him. She treated him well. Then the Duke again asks the question who passed her without receiving the same smile? There was nothing special in her smile for Duke. The Duke admits that he couldn’t bear it more so he gave commands against his own Duchess and as a result, all her smiles stopped. It gives the idea that he gave commands to end her life so that she could no longer be able to smile.
The Duke then ends his victory and again points towards the beautiful portrait saying that now there she stands and it looks like she is alive. Duke asks listeners to stand up and follow him so that they can go and meet other guests. The Duke then starts talking about the listener’s master “Count”.
The Duke expects the count to give the dowry of her daughter as much as he demands. It suggests that the Duke is now getting married again to the daughter of the count and he talks to the servant to him about the matter of dowry.
The Duke ends his discussion and they start going down, while on their way the Duke draws the attention of the servant toward another beautiful piece of art in his gallery. He points towards the statue of the God Neptune who is shown taming his sea horse. The Duke also tells the servant about the artist who made it. He tells him that Claus of Innsbruck made this statue with bronze, especially for him.
Thus, Robert Browning’s poem My Last Duchess is a haunting portrayal of the destructive nature of power, jealousy, and possessiveness. The Duke’s words and actions reveal, a man consumed with the desire for control and power over others, ultimately leading to the destruction of his wife. Although the final line of the poem,
“Notice Neptune, though Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity
which clause of Innsbruck cast in Brozne for me!”
These lines are chilling reminders of the Duke’s cold and calculating nature.